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AT&T plans to sell spectrum

by Martha DeGrasse

After spending almost a billion dollars to purchase 23 spectrum licenses in the 600 MHz bands, AT&T has filed an application to sell more than half of those licenses. The buyer is a Florida firm connected to Columbia Capital, a private equity group that backed one of the smaller companies that bid in the government's recent 600 MHz auction.


In a late-December filing with the FCC, AT&T said it wants to sell 16 licenses in 11 cities to LB License Co., naming Monish Kundra as the principal contact at LB License. Kundra is a partner at Columbia Capital, where he specializes in spectrum investments. Prior to joining Columbia Capital, Kundra was Senior VP of corporate development for Mobile Satellite Ventures, better known as Lightsquared.


Columbia Capital financed Channel 51, one of the bidders in the FCC's recent auction of 600 MHz spectrum. Channel 51 spent $859 million to acquire eight licenses. Now Columbia Capital appears ready to add to its holdings by purchasing most of AT&T's licenses. 


AT&T plans to sell spectrum in 11 markets: Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Tampa, Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, MD-Washington, DC. In several markets, including Dallas and St. Louis, AT&T plans to sell several licenses, bringing the total number of proposed sales to 16. 


AT&T's application to sell 600 MHz spectrum follows a similar application the carrier filed last October.  The carrier said it was assigning seven 600 MHz licenses to an entity called TStar 600. Those licenses coverd Las Vegas, NV; Birmingham, AL; Little Rock, AK; Lansing, MI; Springfield, MA; and Mobile, AL (two licenses).


In the government auction, AT&T spent $910 million to acquire 23 licenses in the 600 MHz band. The licenses covered 18 major markets. Among the U.S. nationwide carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile US were the only purchasers of 600 MHz spectrum, and T-Mobile was by far the biggest buyer, spending almost $8 billion to acquire 1,525 licenses. 

AT&T's most recent application to sell its licenses, which was spotted by Fierce Wireless, notes that LB License is "directly or indirectly controlled" by a corporation "of which more than one-fourth of the capital stock is owned of record or voted by aliens, their representatives, or by a foreign government or representative thereof, or by any corporation organized under the laws of a foreign country." The filing does not name the foreign government. 



The proposal to transfer spectrum comes as AT&T is preparing to add radios and antennas to its towers to support the 700 MHz spectrum it won as part of its contract to build a nationwide public safety network (FirstNet). The carrier had said it planned to add equipment for its new 600 MHz spectrum bands at the same time.


It's possible that AT&T's decision to sell spectrum is partially related to the challenges involved in trying to deploy both the 600 MHz spectrum and the 700 MHz spectrum at the same time. The 600 MHz spectrum was previously used by broadcasters, and before wireless carriers can use it those TV stations need to move their signals to other spectrum bands. This is expected to take at least two years for some broadcasters, and AT&T may not be willing to wait that long.


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Will AT&T use 3.5 GHz spectrum for 5G?

Mobile network operators in Europe and Asia plan to deploy 5G in the 3.5 GHz spectrum bands, but will U.S. operators have the same opportunity? Cable network operators, fixed wireless providers, neutral host providers and even private companies are all expected to be buyers of CBRS spectrum, depending on how the FCC auctions play out. 


The latest CBRS market study from iGR Research  provides an explanation of how the CBRS licensing scheme works and how the technical elements of the new band work. This report includes a forecast of the total number of CBRS nodes expected to be deployed in the U.S. through 2022. The forecasted number of nodes is categorized by Outdoor WISP, Outdoor nonWISP, Inside Commercial, and Inside Residential.

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